Building New Bridges
Across Canada, younger natives are reaching out in a variety of different fields
In diverse fields such as health care, business, law enforcement and conservation, younger aboriginals are setting new directions. Vancouver Bureau Chief Chris Wood, Halifax Bureau Chief John DeMont and Senior Writer John Geddes, filing from Winnipeg and Regina, profile four who are making their mark:
A SENSE OF PRIDE
Art dealer Jacques St. Goddard got his start a long way from the world of chic galleries. In a dingy underpass in Winnipeg’s hard-scrabble North Main district, he assembled ladders, paint buckets and six aboriginal artists for his first project three years ago. Funded partly by the city, the plan was to paint murals to inject some pride into a neighbourhood notorious for its native youth gangs, prostitution and poverty. It was a compelling undertaking, though hardly a glamorous one: St. Goddard recalls having to persuade one passerby not to urinate against the wall his artists were busy decorating. But other North Main denizens soon warmed to the project. “There was a sense of pride building,” St. Goddard says. “Towards the end, there would always be five or six people from the neighbourhood watching the work.”
The project left a troubled neighbourhood with a hopeful new landmark—and St. Goddard with a taste for the role of impresario. He had come up with the mural idea after a short
stint with a nonprofit Winnipeg agency for native artists. When that group fell apart, St. Goddard saw an opportunity for a commercial venture. “There was an overflow of artists trying to find an outlet for their work,” he says. In 1997, he incorporated Canadian Plains Gallery and set up shop in the aboriginal centre that occupies the restored 1904 Canadian Pacific Railway Building, just a few blocks from that now resplendent underpass. His stable of painters, sculptors, even powwow dancers and models, has now grown to nearly 200.
The profusion of native creative talent is nothing new. But in the past, aboriginal artists typically saw their careers managed and their work sold by non-native entrepreneurs. St. Goddard, 29, is a Métis who grew up in the community of St. Laurent, with a population of about 1,020, on the shore of Lake Manitoba. He hopes bringing an aboriginal perspective gives him a competitive advantage in the business of native art. And as a native entrepreneur, St. Goddard has seen doors open before him that might have remained closed to a novice non-native art dealer. Invited to join the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerces trade development committee, for example, he is now using contacts he made to begin planning for an art show in Tokyo.
Support from government agencies set up to foster aboriginal enterprise has already given St. Goddard international exposure. Funding from Aboriginal Business Canada,
a federal agency, allowed him to travel with a group of artists to Germany for an exhibition last year, after which he scrambled to make flight connections to fulfil a Manitoba government contract that took his troop of powwow dancers to Brazil. St. Goddard is beginning to think in terms of a global marketplace. “Navajo art is known around the world, West Coast art is known around the world, Inuit art is known around the world,” he says “As far as this region goes, we must be 10 years behind in terms of promoting our culture.”
St. Goddards generation of native entrepreneurs will have a key advantage in realizing their ambitions: they are backed by growing pools of capital. From Nunavut to British Columbia, massive land-claims settlements are transferring billions of dollars into aboriginal hands. Institutions that will invest that money are now being developed—and they are eagerly looking for native-owned firms to bankroll. In one key initiative, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians and the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation, with Toronto Dominion Bank as their partner, have created First Nations Bank of Canada. TD Bank is providing expertise and financial clout at the outset, but the goal is to create an independent, national bank, owned by aboriginal groups across Canada, by the year 2006.
Still, there are lingering doubts about how quickly a stable aboriginal business sector can emerge. For entrepreneurs like St.
Goddard, after all, the transition from traditional to commercial culture has come with a single bound. “I grew up trapping, ice-fishing, hunting, checking my snares in the morning,” he says of his childhood, not so many years ago, back in St. Laurent. After graduating from high school, he worked in construction in Alberta, then returned to Manitoba where a community college program in arts management set him on his current path.
Lately, St. Goddard says he has begun to think of his business as part of a renaissance of Winnipeg’s urban aboriginal community. But he admits there is a long way to go. “Any day of the week,” he says, “you can see prostitutes and [solvent] sniffers walking by out my gallery window.” If they keep walking, though, they will pass by the murals that St. Goddard hopes are a sign of better days to come.
j HIGH STAKES
! The most important figure in s Lesley Knockwood’s life is her 63year-old grandmother, Virginia, a calm, efficient grey-haired woman who raised her and 11 other family members in a small home on the Indian Brook First Nation reserve, 60 km north of Llalifax. So it is no coincidence that the two women live next door to each other on the Mi’kmaq settlement of 1,800. And that when it came time to choose a career path, Knockwood followed the family matriarch’s example: the two women now work side by side as community health representatives at the Indian Brook Health Centre. “I grew up watching my grandmother take care of everyone who got sick in our family,” Knockwood, 24, explains. “I guess it rubbed off, because for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to do the same thing.”
The job offers immense satisfaction—and daunting challenges. When Indian Brook residents need hands-on care, they call the centre’s community health nurse. But Knockwood and her grandmother are still on call 24 hours a day. Providing preand postnatal care for mothers and their offspring, and ensuring that seniors and shut-ins get the attention they need helps keep the pair busy. But most of their working hours are spent trying to educate the residents of Indian Brook, and counsel them to alter their lifestyles and slow the alarming rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure that plague native communities across the land. “I call it a crisis,” says Knockwood,
‘I got into this because I wanted to help all people, but I feel fortunate to be able to help my people’
who is single and has lived most of her life on the reserve.
It’s a crisis that defies an easy cure. The reasons behind the epidemic of chronic disease on native reserves—lack of exercise, poor diet, excessive smoking, grinding poverty and substance abuse—are well-known thanks to countless government, academic and scientific studies. And improving native health is enough of a priority in Ottawa that the February, 1999, federal budget committed $190 million over three years to new home-care programs and more extensive health monitoring in aboriginal communities. Yet for all that, the avowed goal contained in the federal government’s 1979 Indian Health policy—raising the standard of health within native communities to levels comparable with the rest of Canada—still seems light-years away. “It’s sad,” laments Allen Deleary, director of the Assembly of First Nations’ health secretariat. “All that time and things have only gotten marginally better.”
How bad is the state of native health? Canadian aboriginals smoke at twice the rate of the general population. They are many times more likely to have diabetes, cancer, heart disease, hypertension and arthritis than other Canadians. Nearly half of them feel their health facilities are substandard. The infant mortality rate among natives is still 1.7 times the national average. Native men on reserves can expect to die seven years younger than other Canadians, while the life expectancy for native women is six years less than the national norm.
The situation could get even grimmer with the current aboriginal baby boom. The First Nations and Inuit population is expected to rise from 811,000 now to more than one million in the next 20 years. The population bulge is already straining the capacities of communities and governments to cope. One chilling example is Big Cove, a Mi’kmaq reserve some 100 km north of Moncton, N.B., where 50 per cent of the 2,200 residents are under the age of 18. There, the unemployment rate seldom drops below 80 per cent, drug and alcohol abuse runs rampant and feelings of despair—particularly among the young who envision no future beyond an endless cycle of poverty and addiction—hang over the community. In the past seven years, 16 youths gave up and committed suicide. Chief Robert Levy says that hundreds more either contemplated taking their own lives or tried and failed. “We do our best, but it is not enough,” explains Levy, 43. “The graveyard is filling up with our young people and it seems like there is nothing we can do about it.”
Increasingly, aboriginal people are trying to cure their own health woes. That movement has coincided with a shift in policy at the Medical Services Branch, the arm of Health Canada created in 1949 to tackle the aboriginal health question. Fifty years later, the branch’s $1-billion annual budget
still funds on-reserve home care, preschool education, nutrition programs, and pays for addiction counsellors, AIDS workers and community health representatives like Knockwood and her grandmother. But since 1986, the professed goal of the Medical Services Branch has been to empower native communities to take greater control over the creation, administration and delivery of health-care services. “Our role,” says Debra Gillis, director of the Medical Services Branch’s health programs support division, “is to put the tools in the hands of people at the community level so they can solve their problems.”
Native leaders complain that the transfer is taking too long—and that nothing will fundamentally change until the federal government does something about the poverty and hopelessness natives feel are the root causes of so many health problems. But the people in the trenches, like Lesley Knockwood—who reports to the local band council rather than a faceless Ottawa bureaucrat—welcome the challenge of assuming power over their own lives. In Indian Brook, for example, 90 people suffer from diabetes; for Knockwood, that is more than just a statistic.
Her grandmother and grandfather, John, also a leader in the local Mi’kmaq community, both have diabetes, and she fears she may be predisposed to the disease thought to be triggered by poor diet and lack of exercise. “I’m doing the same things we tell everyone to do—watching my weight, trying to get more exercise, trying to change how I live,” says Knockwood, who has taken long-distance university courses and this month began a correspondence course to become a nursing assistant. Getting people to listen, she admits, can still be hard—old patterns, after all, do not die easily. But the stakes are too high for discouragement. “I got into this because I wanted to help all people,” she says. “But I feel fortunate to be able to help my people.” However long the odds look.
RECLAIMING LOST GROUND
Salmonberries dark as rubies hang shoulder-high over the shallow trickle of Musqueam Creek. In the small clearing where Willard Sparrow, 31, goes to check the creek’s condition, a high canopy of spruce and cedar foliage softens the summer sun and the air is moist and fragrant with growing things. Through the dense shrubbery, even the urban roar of morning rush hour beyond the small Vancouver park that protects the waterway is muted. A sudden burst of birdsong
adds a fluted sound track to the moment as Sparrow gazes at a pool barely three metres across. “This is the last natural pool in this area,” he says. Then he adds, wistfully: “There are a lot of lasts here.”
The fate of the tiny creek could be a metaphor for the fortunes of Sparrows Musqueam people. A little more than a century ago, it was one of 50 salmon streams bubbling down from the forested slopes that would become the city of Vancouver; salmon in abundance rewarded Musqueam fishermen who ranged over most of the Fraser River Delta. Now, the creek is the only place in the city wild salmon still visit— every other creek having been filled in or driven underground into culverts and sewers. The Musqueams traditional lands, meanwhile, have been reduced to three small reserves. Musqueam Creek runs through the largest, on the north bank of the Fraser River near the University of British Columbia campus; it is only 165 hectares in size.
In the past decade, though, both band and waterway have begun to reclaim lost ground—not always quietly. The 1,000-member band is locked in a bitter, high-profile standoff, with scores of non-native tenants on its land, over increases the band has sought in annual rents. Treaty negotiations with Ottawa and the province, meanwhile, over compensation for the loss of traditional Musqueam territory, have been deadlocked since 1997.
But while confrontation and conflict dominate those issues, Sparrow has been following a different drumbeat to accomplish small miracles on Musqueam Creek, bleeding the wisdom of native elders, he says, Sparrow shuns divisive rhetoric, instead tapping support for the waterway wherever he can find it. Environmentalist David Suzuki is a sponsor; the Prince of Wales invited him to his Vancouver hotel room for a private chat about the creek during a skiing vacation last year. “I don’t think political boundaries play into the biological scheme of things,” argues the self-taught naturalist. “I’ve always believed in the partnership approach.”
Not that there is any question where Sparrow finds his cultural roots: “One hundred and ten per cent aboriginal,” he says firmly. And well connected: Sparrow comes from a leading Musqueam family. He carries the name of his grandfather, who was a prominent elected chief. So were two of his aunts. One, Wendy John, with whom young Willard spent most childhood summers on the Musqueam reserve, is now associate regional director general in the federal department of Indian and northern affairs—the second most powerful Indian affairs bureaucrat in British Columbia. “He’s got leadership qualities,” John says of her nephew. “They show at a young age—something, maybe a sparkle in their eye, that tells you they’re going to do something special. Willard was never a follower, never afraid of being independent.”
Much of the credit for that goes to his stepfather. Robert Hall was a registered member of the Skowkale native band
near Chilliwack. Young Willard moved to rural Chilliwack as a toddler after his mothers first marriage ended in divorce and she remarried. But Hall also had Chinese and Jamaican heritage, and liked to say he “looked at things in all three ways,” Sparrow recalls. “To have a First Nations point of view on things, in his eyes, was a failure—if it was exclusive.” Growing up in the country provided another formative experience, introducing Willard firsthand to nature: “I had a few hundred acres to play around in.”
Later, as a teenager, it also seemed natural to join friends in the Musqueam’s age-old pursuit of Fraser River salmon. In 1988, Sparrow became a commercial fisherman. Salmon have traditionally been central to the lives of Pacific natives: a source of mythology and faith as well as food. But the treasured fish have also been a source of conflict. Among many injustices that rankle B.C. natives, one of the most resented is the way non-native fishermen shouldered aboriginals aside during the early years of this century—even securing laws to criminalize natives who engaged in traditional fisheries.
The Musqueam rejoiced in 1991, when a Supreme Court of Canada ruling forced the federal department of fisheries and oceans to acknowledge a native right to salmon, and to increase natives’ share of the catch. But whatever hopes they had for restored wealth built on salmon were quickly dashed. Ottawa’s court-directed policy ran into fierce hostility from non-native fishing groups. And then there was the perilous state of the fishery itself: just as officials increased natives’ share of the salmon catch, stocks began to plummet.
Sparrow, by then married and the father of a young son, stopped fishing and took a job as an aboriginal fisheries officer. That ended when Sparrow broke his back in an accident at a boat launch in 1995. He defied medical predictions by making close to a full recovery, but doctors banned Sparrow from returning to his former job. Instead, he became the band’s habitat co-ordinator, overseeing environmental projects. One early project: a survey of Musqueam Creek, where he had played as a child. What he found appalled and changed him. Where once the sound of spawning salmon had awakened sleepers on summer nights, in 1996 only 12 fish returned. “My philosophy turned around,” says Sparrow. “I wasn’t working for people anymore, I was working for a system—an ecosystem.”
Since then, Sparrow has focused his energy on the band’s Musqueam Watershed Restoration Project, courting funding from a variety of sources, including the Suzuki Foundation. Physical measures like tree planting and trash removal aim to improve the biological health of the Musqueam and its tributary, Cutthroat Creek. Public speaking and school visits, meanwhile, aim to raise Vancouverites’ awareness of the last salmon creek within their urban borders—and the wider importance of similarly threatened streams throughout the B.C. Lower Mainland to the future of the fish.
Those efforts have enjoyed some success. More than 50
chum and coho salmon came back to Musqueam Creek last year. Meanwhile, a recent encounter at the creek told Sparrow his consciousness-raising message is also getting through. Wading in the water to survey some of its wild inhabitants, Sparrow was accosted by a woman on horseback. “She said, ‘The Musqueam are trying to save that creek, so get out of it!’ ” he recalls with a smile.
Sparrow’s bridge-building style puts him at odds with the Musqueam band’s general image in British Columbia these days. The band has attracted fierce criticism for steeply raising the rents paid on 74 non-native homes on reserve land. The band’s arguments in support of those increases have been legitimized by two courts, but the tenants have sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The high court will decide this fall whether or not to hear the case. Meanwhile, most of the tenants are refusing to pay the higher rent—while the Musqueam band’s refusal to compromise with its tenants, critics contend, has contributed to a hardening of non-native attitudes towards aboriginal rights. “It’s adversely affecting the treaty process,” asserts lawyer and Musqueam tenant Kerry-Lynne Findlay. “Its adversely affecting the ability of other First Nations to market their leasehold properties.”
Sparrow sidesteps criticism of his band leadership’s position on the contentious rent issue, while deploring the rhetoric on both sides. “I hear a lot of fear,” he says. “As long as you’re putting fear out front, it doesn’t allow for conver-
sation.” As a naturalist, Sparrow is well aware that the Musqueam watershed and others like it will be saved only through the effort of natives and nonnatives together. Encouraging the two to talk, he is convinced, is the first step to preserving both the last salmon creek in Vancouver—and the vanishing heritage of his people.
ON THE STREETS
In the cramped living room of a bungalow in gritty north-central Regina, a young white man is pacing the floor angrily. This is his sisters house, and her TV set has just been stolen as she slept. When the noise of the break-in woke her before midnight, she telephoned the police and then family members who live nearby. A pried-open front window with a torn screen leaves little doubt about how the thief came and went. As police officers poke around outside with flashlights, her brother hurls blame at the city’s large native population. “From now on, I’m going to beat the crap out of every Indian who comes near this place,” he sputters. Just then, Regina Police Service Const. Greg McNabb, whose late father was a Dakota-Sioux, whose mother is a proud Métis, and whose stepfather is a Cree chief and former RCMP special constable, steps into the room.
McNabb smiles and turns back outside, leaving it to another officer to handle the situation. He shrugs off the illtimed remark, taking note that it was not intentionally aimed at him. On other occasions, though, he has been a target. “With me being native—and I guess I am pretty dark—people identify me right away,” McNabb says. Perhaps surprisingly, he says he encounters overt racism from whites very rarely. Race more often emerges as an issue when he is arresting a fellow native. “I hear traitor’ and I get, ‘Why are you doing this to your own people?’ ” he says. “But I consider who is saying it: someone who is resorting to name-calling instead of dealing with a problem.”
Problems are never in short supply in north-central Regina. The inner-city precinct is one of Canada’s more demanding police beats. It is, after all, the most crime-ridden district in a city that has the country’s highest crime rate. Police in Regina, which has a population of about 180,000, last year handled 14,785 crimes for every 100,000 people, well above the 12,142 crimes per 100,000 logged in Vancouver, the city with the next worst rate. Nobody disputes the fact that north-central—with much of its large native population mired in unemployment and blighted by alcohol and drug addiction—is the core of Regina’s crime problem. Less than six per cent of the city’s population lives in the area—about 10,500 people, just under one-third of them aboriginal—but it accounts for nearly 20 per cent of incidents that demand police attention.
No wonder residents, echoing the language of American TV cop shows, sometimes refer to their neighbourhood as “the projects” or “the ghetto.” And there are low-rent apartment buildings and run-down houses with duct tape over cracked windows, but also well-tended little homes on blocks made graceful by elms. McNabb speaks of his turf fondly. “I love it,” he says, cruising with his partner along northcentral’s main drag, Albert Street, at the start of a recent 12hour night shift. Handsome, athletic and quietly confident,
McNabb, 29, is the sort of native officer Canadian police forces are falling over one another to recruit to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the booming population of aboriginal youth in inner-city neighbourhoods.
McNabb speaks fondly of his rapport with north-central’s kids and his respect for its older native residents. Mostly, though, he says the job leaves him no choice but to focus on the neighbourhood’s bleaker side. On this night, for instance,
McNabb and his partner plan to scan the sidewalks for a prostitute who they suspect might have witnessed a shooting in June, when a shotgun blast took off a man’s leg. Investigators link that crime to burgeoning urban native gangs. Yet McNabb downplays the issue. He insists gang activity is far less prevalent in Regina than in Winnipeg.
‘I’ve always believed in the partnership approach’
Still, he admits there is steady two-way traffic between northcentral and the penitentiaries where locked-up gang leaders recruit members and consolidate their power.
Soon after they begin their shift, McNabb and his partner rush to respond to a police radio alert about a possible shooting. When they arrive at the scene—along with several other patrol cars and an ambulance—it turns out the victim has merely been punched in the face after being chased by two unidentified men. A native heavily marked with scars and tattoos, he refuses to say anything about who hit him. After being patched up by a paramedic, he wanders off unsteadily into a maze of sidestreets. The rest of the police disperse, but for McNabb and his partner, this episode is not quite over.
They wait a few minutes, then drive slowly with their lights off to a nearby alley. The man with the banged-up nose now steps out of the shadows and leans into the open cruiser window. He is, it turns out, on familiar terms with McNabb and his partner—one of the many channels they keep open into north-central’s complex underworld. No longer sounding dazed, he complains that he has been made to look bad— in the eyes of any rivals who might have been watching—by having the police question him openly in the street. Asked if he is in immediate danger, he says, “It will take 10 of them to kill me,” before swaggering off. McNabb and his partner fill in the background: this hard case, only recently released after a stint in prison, is most likely trying to reassert himself in the
drug trade. But there is, apparently, somebody who stands to lose market share and is not letting him slip easily back into his old life.
McNabb’s path to these half-lit backstreets began in the sunshine of the RCMP station parking lot in his home town, Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask.
His Cree stepfather, Walter McNabb, then a special native constable at the detachment (he is now chief of a Cree reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle), put his 14-year-old stepson to work washing cmisers. “I got to drive them 10 feet to the hose,” Greg McNabb remembers with a smile.
“Sitting in a police car at that age—wow.” From then on, his ambition was clear. After high school, he entered the RCMP training academy in Regina. He was only 19 years old. His first posting as a Mountie was to Wetaskiwin, Alta., where homesickness overcame him. He quit and returned to Saskatchewan with a vague idea of becoming a schoolteacher. Less than a year later, in the summer of 1993, he joined the Regina Police Service, and was assigned to north-central.
He thrived, emerging as a conspicuous asset—poised, articulate and popular among his fellow officers—on a force eager to show its sensitivity to urban aboriginal issues. Yet McNabb declines to talk much about what it means to be one of the 29 natives among the Regina Police Service’s 319 officers. The instinct to fit in, rather than stand out, may be inherited from his mother. Laraine McNabb, 51, is a registered nurse in Fort Qu’Appelle who,
three decades ago, was the only native woman in her nursing class in Saskatoon. She says she tried to pass on to Greg a simple ethos: seek no special treatment, work hard. As for expressing aboriginal identity, she is hardnosed. “Those things are fine,” she says, “but we still have to make a living, whether we like it or not, in a white man’s world. After you accomplish that, then you can round out your life with all these other things.”
Greg McNabb grew up with scant exposure to native traditions. His father, Bill Isnana, a Dakota-Sioux from the Standing Buffalo reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle, died in a car accident when Greg was two years old. “Greg was always a very mature boy,” Laraine McNabb, the daughter of a white mother and a native father, recalls. “Before his time, he saw himself as the man of the house.” When Greg was 9, his world changed when his mother married Walter McNabb. He made an impressive role model. The family moved from Standing Buffalo to the white community of Fort Qu’Appelle, where Greg’s skill as a hockey player, honed in shinny games on the open ice of Echo Lake, helped him fit in with
‘You think of yourself as a police officer, not as a native’
his non-native peers. “There are no barriers in sports in a small town,” his mother says. “If you are good at them, you are accepted.”
Greg’s ties to Standing Buffalo were not permanendy severed. Soon after he joined the Regina force, he was invited by his uncle, Lloyd Isnana, a respected elder steeped in DakotaSioux tradition, to experience a traditional sweat lodge. McNabb accepted, but protects the close relationship that evolved as private. “I used to sweat with my uncle; he taught me quite a bit,” he says tentatively. “I don’t know if I can really get into it.” When Isnana died three years ago, those lessons apparendy stopped. Another uncle, Melvin Isnana, Standing Buffalo’s current chief, wishes Greg would return to the reserve more often these days, but adds: “It’s his choice. We don’t force anyone.”
The old ways that can sometimes survive on the reserves seem distant in north-central. Their shift not yet half over, McNabb and his partner have encountered prostitutes and thugs, hauled in a belligerent 20-year-old drunk to sober up in jail, and cooled down an apartment party that was threatening to boil over. And, sadly, every incident has involved young natives. How does McNabb cope with it, night after night? “You think of yourself as a police officer, not as a native person,” he says blundy.
But later he refines that answer. “It’s really easy to get caught up in it,” he says of the plight of so many young urban natives. “It’s nice to sit down and talk with other native people in the area every once in a while, especially the older people—they know the score. And younger children are always friendly.” Those proud old folks and happy kids give McNabb a break from the dulling succession of troubled adolescents and young adults that he confronts on the job—a change of perspective he says means a great deal to him. What he gives them back, though, has to be worth at least as much. 113